On March 9, 2022, Russian forces struck this residential building in Izium, killing at least 44 people.

The attack killed men, women and children who had sought shelter in the building’s basement.

Mykhailo Yatsentiuk, an electrician in his sixties, survived.

Seven members of his family – his wife, daughter, son-in-law, grandchildren, and mother-in-law – perished.

“A Thousand Explosions in My Ears”

Russian Attack Killed Dozens of Civilians in Izium Residential Building

Human Rights Watch spent three weeks in Izium, in Ukraine’s eastern Kharkivska region, and interviewed 21 people between September 2022 and March 2023: survivors, witnesses, family members of victims, and emergency responders to the March 9 attack. Researchers analyzed physical evidence at the site, at 2 Pershotravneva Street, and took photos and videos of the badly damaged building. Researchers converted these recordings into a 3D model, also using satellite imagery and Open Street Map data, to demonstrate the destruction.

Researchers analyzed building records and architectural plans to reconstruct the interior layout. Because the building and basement were renovated over the years and some details differed from building records, additional photos, sketches drawn by Yatsentiuk, and information he provided helped researchers create a comprehensive 3D model of the building before the attack.

What follows is a digital reconstruction of the effects of the bombing — one of the deadliest attacks for civilians since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022 — told through the story of Yatsentiuk’s survival, the killing of his family, and his fight for justice.

Mikhailo Yatseniuk
Mykhailo Yatsentiuk in the ruins of the building at 2 Pershotravneva Street in Izium, his former home, in December 2022. © 2023 ARD Story by SWR and rbb
Mikhailo Yatseniuk and family
Left: Oleksii Kravchenko, Vitalii Kravchenko, Aryna Kravchenko; Right: Aryna Kravchenko, Olha Kravchenko, Oleksii Kravchenko, Dmytro Kravchenko, Vitalii Kravchenko. Pictured before the February 2022 full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. © Courtesy of Mykhailo Yatsentiuk

Situated on the eastern bank of the Donets River, the five-story building was home to Mykhailo Yatsentiuk and his wife of four decades, Natalia.

There, in the close-knit building with 40 apartments, they raised three children and six grandchildren. They celebrated holidays and shared meals with their extended family. The family knew their neighbors well: They gathered mushrooms in the forest, maintained benches in the garden, and collected money to improve the building.

Before Izium came under attack, the building had been a gathering place for the community, with a primary school close by, basketball hoops, and a soccer field next door. In the backyard, children played on a colorful playground complete with a picnic table.

Prior to the March 9 attack, Russian forces did not control the city’s central district, where the apartment building is located. The tree-lined river running past the building, where Yatsentiuk’s family enjoyed summers together, served a different purpose: it held off advancing Russian troops.

The building from the water
Yatsentiuk’s building from the Donets River. © Courtesy of Mykhailo Yatsentiuk

At the time of the attack, Ukrainian forces, including Territorial Defense Forces, were still fighting to repel Russian troops and affiliated forces in the area, who had taken much of Izium but had not reached the central district. The civilians who remained in the city did what they could to survive as the attacks intensified.

As Russian forces battled for control of Izium – which they would occupy from March to September 2022 – attacks increased in Yatsentiuk’s neighborhood and some had hit the building itself but caused no casualties, residents said.

Despite the hostilities, Human Rights Watch could find no evidence to suggest the building could lawfully have been treated as a military objective. Four survivors and witnesses interviewed said that to their knowledge the building was not being used for military purposes. In the days leading up to March 9, they did not hear or see firing from the building. One witness said that he was told Ukrainian soldiers had entered the basement and requested keys to the attic earlier that month to “check it,” but other residents said they did not see any Ukrainian forces or other military presence in the building before the attack.

Human Rights Watch visited the building on several occasions after September 20, following the retreat of Russian forces, and inspected the remains, accessing the remaining stairwells, apartments, and what was left of the basement. A videographer flew a drone over and around the building in November and January 2023 to gather high resolution drone footage of the rooftop and visible parts of the attic. During physical and visual inspections, researchers found no signs of established firing positions on the roof, inside, or within a few meters of the building.

In three locations on the eastern side of the building, furthest from the river, researchers found a total of more than a dozen fired casings from 5.45mm and 7.62mm caliber small arms projectiles. Most were on two interior stairwell landings on lower floors; the others were in a fifth-story apartment. The markings on the casings indicate that these projectiles were manufactured in factories on both Ukrainian and Russian territory, but the widespread circulation of this ammunition and the frequent seizure of ammunition by Russian and Ukrainian forces from each other, makes it impossible to conclude who used this ammunition, when it was used, or how it ended up in the building. None of the four interviewed witnesses said that gunshots came from the building at or around the time of the March 9 attack.

One resident said that, in the months after the attack, Russian forces came into the building occasionally to take food supplies from the apartments. In May, he said he saw them bring small boxes into the building, and the resident said he later saw expended casings in the stairwell and on a windowsill in the building.

Another survivor said that in the days before March 9, when he and another resident went outside at night, they could see and hear small arms fire and heavier weapons from the western riverbank, which Russian forces controlled.

Human Rights Watch could not confirm the specific weapon used in the attack on Yatsentiuk’s building due to a lack of visible remnants at the site, which emergency workers say were buried in the rubble. Ukrainian forces later collected such remnants after Russian forces withdrew from Izium.

The damage is consistent with a large, air-dropped munition such as the FAB-500 series general purpose bomb, equipped with a delayed-action fuze.

A munition with a delayed-action fuze is configured to detonate after it hits the target and travels a short distance or time further. In this case, it could have penetrated multiple floors of the building before detonating, causing serious damage.

Attacks that do not distinguish between military objectives and civilians or civilian objects, or in which the expected harm to civilians and civilian property exceeds the direct and concrete military gain anticipated, violate the laws of war. People who carry out such attacks with criminal intent – that is, deliberately or recklessly – are responsible for war crimes.

Throughout early March, Yatsentiuk’s building trembled with every nearby explosion as his family sheltered inside. But it did not fall.

Human Rights Watch obtained floor plans from local authorities, which combined with on-site photographs and sketches by Yatsentiuk enabled researchers to assess the structural arrangement of the building and the interior conditions before the attack.

Human Rights Watch analyzed photographs, videos, and satellite imagery taken before Russia’s occupation of the area, which provide insight into the condition of the building’s structure and façade, showing it was intact and likely structurally sound.

“Do you see this hole?” Yatsentiuk said in an interview, pointing to a window labeled as Sector A3 in a diagram drawn by Human Rights Watch. “An apartment with two rooms was there ... And another hit was here, to the attic [labeled A6 in the diagram]. Do you see this big hole?”

This damage is visible in the 3D model, using imagery and building measurements.

In the days before the March 9 attack, nearby explosions shattered windows in the building, including in Yatsentiuk apartment, he said.

With no gas in the building, the family cooked on the balcony with a portable grill that they used every weekend in the summers to grill meat and make pilaf.

On March 6, after a series of nearby attacks, Yatsentiuk and his family decided to move into the basement, joining their neighbors. Residents had periodically moved to the basement and interior rooms in early March, heeding the warning of air raid alerts, but this time was different.

An electrician by trade, Yatsentiuk knew the basement well. He had access to the electrical room, where he hoped his family would be safe.

Aryna Kravchenko, © Courtesy of Mykhailo Yatsentiuk
Oleksii Kravchenko, © Courtesy of Mykhailo Yatsentiuk
Olha Kravchenko, © Courtesy of Mykhailo Yatsentiuk
Natalia Yatsentiuk, © Courtesy of Mykhailo Yatsentiuk
Zinaida Kopyl, © Courtesy of Mykhailo Yatsentiuk

His wife, Natalia, 65, joined him, along with their daughter Olha Kravchenko, 39; son-in-law Vitalii Kravchenko, 38; three grandchildren, Dmytro, 15; Oleksii, 9; and Aryna, 3. Natalia’s 96-year-old mother, Zinaida, also sought shelter in the cramped room that Yatsentiuk outfitted with an inflatable mattress, blankets, a heater, pillows, and a laptop.

The basement included self-contained rooms accessible from the four main indoor stairwells, as well as larger rooms that could be reached from two outdoor staircases.

With no electricity, the basement was a “dark labyrinth,” said one survivor, who asked not to be publicly identified.

They navigated the rooms by touch and sound to avoid stepping on people who were sleeping on the floor.

Neighbors made small talk. One teenage girl brought her cat.

Outside, war raged, the sound of military aircraft and drones overhead.

Temperatures dropped below freezing in the days before the attack.

Floorplan of the basement showing the main shelter and electric room

Many of the building’s residents sheltered in the central part of the basement, away from drafty exits. There, they thought, they’d find safety and warmth.

The night before the attack, one survivor recalled, the voices of her neighbors carried through the damp basement. In the darkness, they sang.

The next morning, on March 9, Yatsentiuk left the basement to make porridge for breakfast, bringing it back to his family in the electrical room.

It would be their final meal.

“Grandpa, I want tea,” his granddaughter, whom he called “little Aryna,” said to him after finishing breakfast.

Yatsentiuk rose to make tea on their gas grill two floors up.

“Misha, I’ll come with you,” Natalia said.

“Great,” he responded. “I’ll wait in the corridor.”

Yatsentiuk’s act of love for his granddaughter would save his life.

Around 9 a.m., Yatsentiuk left the electrical room, making his way toward a metal ladder that led to the main floor. Then came an explosion that one survivor described as “a thousand explosions in my ears.”

A large munition ripped the building in half, resulting in a hole measuring at least 15 meters across.

The damage is consistent with a large, air-dropped munition. Witnesses said that aircraft had been flying overhead for days, including on March 9, and they heard large explosions in the area as Russian forces fought to take control of central Izium; the only area of the city not under its control by early March.

Human Rights Watch verified two videos taken around March 9 showing an attack just over a half mile south of Yatsentiuk’s building. One shows a cloud of dust and smoke rising in the air, and the other shows a person taking cover next to evacuation buses about 400 meters from a building as an aircraft makes a low altitude pass overhead.

The attack caused all five floors in the central part of the building to collapse.

Yatsentiuk lost consciousness. When he awoke, partially buried under broken concrete and the metal ladder, which had protected him from falling debris, he couldn’t find Natalia, Vitalii, or Olha. He couldn’t hear his grandchildren, or Zinaida.

“My family in the basement was crushed and killed,” said Yatsentiuk. “Aryna Kravchenko is my guardian angel.”

It took Yatsentiuk hours to dig himself out of the rubble.

Most people sheltering in the building died in the attack. It took more than a month to locate and exhume their bodies.

After the attack, Yatsentiuk was a “lost” man, he says. He stopped shaving. He was forgetful and had a hard time remembering names. He was devastated. One woman, around 70 years old, survived the attack but remained trapped beneath the rubble. Neighbors brought her food and water, but she died several days later.

At first, emergency workers and other neighbors used their bare hands to dig people out. Then, they turned to equipment, which emergency services were able to find through the Russian forces who had taken full control of the city.

Yatsentiuk and others used whatever they could to identify victims, some of whom were maimed so badly they were unrecognizable. The survivors found clues that pointed to past lives: passports and IDs in pockets, phones with numbers of loved ones. No witnesses or rescue workers said they saw or recovered weapons, or bodies appearing to be wearing military uniforms.

Some of the bodies were the remains of neighbors, like Lidia Medynska, a respected gynecologist who loved taking long walks in the forest before the war.

Advertisement for Lidia Medynska, obstetrician-gynecologist
A photo of Lidia Medynska shared by her son Oleksandr and published by the online memorial site Victims Memorial, which gathers information about men, women and children who died or were killed after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. © Courtesy of Victims Memorial

Yatsentiuk did not know some of the others, likely people from nearby buildings seeking shelter in the basement. Those unidentified were buried with a number – no name.

Yatsentiuk dug out all seven bodies of his family members on April 12 and 13.

“I took them to the cemetery on Nekrasova Street, where several generations of my family members were buried,” Yatsentiuk says. He made a coffin out of wood and carpets, burying them in the city cemetery, lush with trees, making sure his three grandchildren were buried next to their parents. He didn’t want them to be alone.

One emergency worker said they exhumed 51 bodies. Based on interviews with witnesses and those who recovered bodies, as well as analysis of social media posts, Human Rights Watch corroborated the deaths of at least 44 people, including Yatsentiuk’s family members.

However, that number is most likely higher because some bodies could not be identified and some bodies had been buried before the emergency workers’ exhumations.

The crumbling remains of Yatsentiuk’s building still stand; a reminder of what was lost.

Walking through the gutted structure of his neighbor’s living room nine months after the attack, he looks out into an empty space. It was once his family home.

Down below is the staircase he took from the basement, where he awoke and realized his family was gone.

Charred apartments around him remain sliced in half and frozen in time, the belongings of lost lives spilling out into tangled wire and shattered brick. A grey blazer dangles in an open closet. A sewing machine teeters on shards of broken concrete. Cracked dishes sit stacked on a serving platter.

The playground is empty, the school down the road, destroyed. The nearby riverbank, where residents fished and Yatsentiuk spent summers picnicking with his family, quiet.

Little yellow flowers sprouting from the earth around the building decorate makeshift memorials for the dead.

The people who called this building home are gone. Some of them were entombed in the basement after the attack. After their bodies were recovered from the debris by residents and emergency workers, many were buried in graves on the outskirts of the city. Others, the survivors, cannot return home.

Yatsentiuk wants justice for Natalia. He wants accountability for those who are responsible for the attack, killing Vitalii, Olha, Dmytro, and Oleksii. He wants the plane that dropped the munition, killing little Aryna, identified.

As investigations into possible violations of the laws of war in Ukraine unfold, Yatsentiuk says that the international community should “dedicate utmost attention” to these inquiries.

For now, Yatsentiuk is trying to rebuild what’s left of his shattered life in Izium. Some months, on the ninth – the date his family died – good things happen to him, he says. It’s a welcome reprieve. He’s starting to “live again.”

Someday, Yatsentiuk says, he’ll return to the cemetery across the river where he hastily buried his family. There, among the trees and the patchwork graves, he will build a monument in their honor.

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